Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Judgment Days are Gone

I am a judgmental person when it comes to money. I try not to be, but there it is. Judgment. I (usually) keep it to myself, or at least mention it only to my husband. But it is there, in my head. Thinking of how I would do things differently. Only I am judgmental in a backwards way than normal - I judge when people spend too much money (in my opinion).

I work with a guy who spends money like it's going out of style. He buys $250 jeans, designer leashes for his dog and dry cleans every article of clothing he owns. Sometimes I cannot believe the stories he has to tell. And tell them he does. He's putting it out there, just like I write about our finances. So, arguably, his choices might not be the most prudent. But what do I know? He could have no debt, maxed out retirement savings and a million dollars in the bank. Who am I to judge?

Even if I know the ins and outs of someone's finances, why should I think that I know what is better for them than they do? Why does my mind always jump right to what they should be doing differently to be more frugal? It's a lifestyle choice, and for the most part, their decisions don't affect me at all.

I think that somewhere inside I still see material goods and possessions and outward displays of money as valuable. For the most part, in our society, people are not perceived as "rich" unless they drive the fancy cars and live in the big mansions. When I judge others for spending, I am really just a little jealous. That I don't have money to do that and reach my financial goals. So to make myself feel better, I put them down in my head as if they are being frivolous and wasteful.

I am going to stop doing this to myself. Whenever I have a negative, judgmental thought, I will replace it with this: Those is their personal finances. My personal finances are mine. Hopefully, this will result in a happier outlook overall.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Bare Bones Budget

In the midst of all of our debt repayment, I began to wonder: what would we do now if our income was cut off? In an ideal world, we would have a nice 6 month emergency fund to rely on until the income streams began to flow again. Unfortunately, this is far from Utopia and we don't have a 6 month emergency fund. We don't even have a 1 month emergency fund yet.

If our income decreases, our budget would have to be altered as well. We run a pretty tight & frugal ship, but there are a few more corners that could be cut. We made the decision to be slightly less than gazelle intense in order to keep at the debt repayment for the long haul. For example, we have a gym membership, Netflix, and $100 "fun money" each month, per person. We are frugal, but still manage to enjoy ourselves occasionally. In the event of an income disaster, our priorities would have to shift, again, to a completely bare bones budget. No frills, no extras. Just the necessities.

The first priority would be survival. To survive, we need food and shelter. Our mortgage and grocery bill are the first items in the bare bones budget. (Reminder: we are assuming the income setback is temporary. If it were permanent, we would have to move to a less expensive housing option.) The mortgage is constant, but the grocery bill could be trimmed to eliminate any junk food, expensive meats, even dairy products.

The next line items in the budget support our survival and include electricity, water, gas, car payment and car insurance. Our utilities are almost basic needs, but we could theoretically come up with a payment plan if need be. In Massachusetts, it is illegal to shut off the heat during the winter if you are experiencing financial hardship. We have electric heat, so we would be able to keep our electricity even if the bill wasn't paid. Gas, the car payment and the car insurance are needed to continue working or job searching.

Following that is the internet and phone bills. We combine our internet with our cable, and it would actually cost more money to cut back to just the internet. This is needed to continue working (we both work from home 10-20 hours a week) and job search, if need be. Our cell phones are the only phones we have, and we need to be able to contact work and potential jobs.

The last items in the bare bones budget are our debts. The student loans could be deferred if the situation persisted. We have eliminated much of our credit card debt, but the stubborn beast remains. With a drop in income, we would maintain our minimum payments and any extra, if possible, but wouldn't be able to attack the debt anywhere near as aggressively.

Once I put all of these numbers on paper, it was much easier to see how much money we need to make. Most of our expenses are fixed, so this is a pretty accurate picture. For a temporary solution, we would do everything we could to make enough money to equal our expenses, but, if need be, would borrow funds to stay afloat. I wouldn't be willing to give up our house and life for a one or two month drop in our income. Once we start approaching month 3-4, something would have to change.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I May Have Ruined My Husband's Credit

I made a mistake. This seems to be a theme recently. Back in November, we transferred one of our credit cards to a 0% offer. The old credit card, my husband's Amex, was paid off! Rejoice! Champagne flowed from the heavens. I then deleted it completely from my memory.

Which was a very bad idea.

Two or three times a week, I open up Quicken (aff.), download my transactions from my checking account and pay my bills. I update my credit card balance in Quicken once a week or so, as I'm not using the cards for anything. Or so I thought. Turns out, I forgot about one teensy little detail. The automatic payment for tolls I had set up long ago in the days of yore on the Amex. Back in the days when all payments for all things were set up on credit cards. They slowly migrated over to the bank account, but our toll payments were like a weakly, sick herd member. Irregular. Unreliable. Fell right on through the cracks.

After paying off the Amex in November, I didn't open it, look at it, think of it until last week. We were signed up for paperless statements, so nothing comes in the mail. When I did log in to the account, much to my dismay, there was a balance of $171.97. Consisting of some residual interest (that I forgot about), two toll charges (that I forgot about) and two late fees. The computer demanded $74.04 past due! Pay now! I paid the past due amount last week and the remainder today. And felt like a horrible person pretty much ever since I found my error.

The Amex is the only card that is entirely in my husband's name. I have one in my name only as well, to keep some aspects of our credit histories and scores separate. If this were my credit card, I wouldn't feel quite so bad. At least then my mistake would affect my credit. I have never had a bill this far past due (over 30 days), so I have no idea what this is going to do to his credit. Amex already shot up the interest rate from a so-so 16.99% to an astronomical 29.24%. I will be checking our credit reports in the beginning of February, but I have no baseline to compare to. We'll see if the late and overdue balance is included in his credit history.

The take-home lesson here is: don't forget to check your cards that have been paid off. My new version of Quicken automatically downloads all our account at once, which will prevent this from happening again. That and the fact that I already switched the toll payments to our bank account.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Timing Was a Little Off

Sometimes I take the money we have for granted. I assume it will always be there, sitting in my account, until I tell it where to go. My husband gets paid the first of the month. I get paid every other Thursday, and the last day of the month. Two months out of the year, I get 3 paychecks. Fantastic. And then there are the months where my second paycheck comes later in the month. Like January.

Our bills are all due by the 23rd of every month. Most of them fall in the first week (mortgage, car insurance, condo fees) and the rest are spread out... until the 23rd. It's usually nice to have a week or so at the end of every month where all our bills are paid and we're just cruising until the next month. We spend our money on regular expenses like gas and groceries, and put the excess onto the credit cards. Feels good to be "done" for the month.

In January, however, all of our bills were due before my second paycheck, which will be deposited tomorrow. This would have been perfectly fine if I had realized this in the beginning of January. I made a large payment to the credit card in the first week of January that could have waited. However, I didn't notice until I was looking at our projected balance in our bank account in Quicken last week. The lowest projected balance was $248.76, which doesn't include groceries or gas. Yikes! That's cutting it a little too close for me.

We talked it over and decided to play it safe. So, for the past week and a half, we have been using the credit card for our regular expenses. We have charged about $150 in that time for food and fuel. Which is in line with our budget. I just hate that we had to rely on the credit to "float" us until the paycheck comes in. It reminds me too much of the old days when we relied on credit for everything. On Friday, once my paycheck is cleared, the first thing I'm going to do is pay off that balance. It's still in the grace period, so no interest will accrue. And in the future, I'll pay a little more attention to our lowest projected balance and plan accordingly.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Birthday Sur-prize

This past Saturday, January 19th, was my birthday. I turned one year older than I was before :). To celebrate, my parents and siblings came to our house and enjoyed a nice night, complete with dinner and some games. They gave me some very nice gifts - a few Tim McGraw CD's, new Garnier hair goo, some work clothes. All in all it was a lovely time.

On a happy coincidence, the Friday before was my company's Christmas party. We somehow bypassed the month of December and instead it was scheduled in January. As part of the party we had a raffle with only one prize. One extremely ginormous prize.

With much fanfare, we all laid out our tickets in front of us on our tables. The manager dramatically reached into the hat full of tickets, selected one, and read its number. All around me people were frantically checking their tickets and saying "not me", "not me", "not me". I looked at my tickets sprawled out on the table, and sure enough, I won! I won! I was in complete and total shock. My jaw dropped onto the floor. What did I win, what glorious, humungo prize was my office giving away?

A forty two inch plasma flat screen HDTV.

That's right. A brand spanking new beautiful, huge TV. We borrowed my parent's van and picked it up on Saturday morning. Later that night we set it up in our living room and it looks fantastic. The picture is amazing. Even without high def, the detail you see is just phenomenal.

We talked about selling it. At first, for a fleeting moment. I know how much it cost ($1100!!), and that amount of money could go pretty far. We didn't need a TV - not by any stretch of the imagination. We had a perfectly good 36" CRT that we weren't planning on replacing anytime soon. But this came along and... we couldn't bear to sell it. We're going to try and sell the old TV, but it was a hand-me-down and we want to offer it back first. If we can sell it on Craigslist, that would be nice for the income.

The other thing we need to consider is our cable. We currently have the most basic plan with only regular network channels. I have heard that the network stations are bound to broadcast their HD channels with the basic cable plan. We (read: my husband) are looking into whether or not we need an HD tuner or receiver. I don't want to subscribe a bigger cable package, so we may forgo the high def for a while. I am just so excited and so overwhelmed to have won this magnificent prize!

Monday, January 21, 2008

My Top 10 Favorite Free Things To Do

The other day, Trent at the Simple Dollar posted about free things to do. It really got me thinking. With all the whining I've done recently, I need to celebrate some of the finer (free) things in life, because, let's face it, it's not so bad. :)

I made a list of all my favorite free things to do and stopped at 56 because that's how many lines were on the piece of paper and I am weird like that. I could probably double that, given the time and another sheet of paper. I could bore you with a nice, long, 112 item list, but I figured I'd whittle it down to the top ten. Since I love countdowns and think they're much much better than countups, I present to you, in ascending order, my ten most favorite free things to do.

10. Taking a walk. Little did I know that, when my parents and I would take walks with our dogs years ago, that it was actually fun and useful. I enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now - a nice little stroll down the road or a walk around the park. Lovely.

9. Sledding. Not tubing, sledding. We live next to a golf course with a nice big hill up to the 6th green. I'm sure it's a bugger to play that hole, but it's fun to slide down the hill!

8. Sunbathing. I know, I know, skin cancer. Bad for you. UV rays. But it feels SO GOOD to lay out in the sunshine and feel the sweet breeze on your skin. Since my husband is fair-skinned, I use sunscreen religiously when planning a day out. I most often sunbathe at the beach (obviously) and love to combine it with...

7. Reading a (borrowed) book. Whether borrowed from the library or my darling sister or mom, I rarely buy books, but read as many as I have time to. I have always been big into reading and I go through them pretty quickly, easily losing myself in the story.

6. Sitting by a fire. In the fireplace or an outdoor campfire, I am drawn to a burning pile of logs like, well, a moth to a flame. Something about the crackling wood and the smoke transcends all seasons and is very relaxing. My husband and I have had many heart to hearts while staring into the fires - it makes for some good conversations and removes the everyday hum of technology that seems to surround us.

5. Sleeping. I remember the days when I begged to stay up later than my bedtime. Now, bedtime is something I look forward to every night. I love my bed and the feeling of complete relaxation when I place my head on the pillow.

4. Playing with my Kitties. My two crazy cats are always coming up with something new. Calypso, the older cat loves to jump for toys - I mean back flips. Tango, the baby, has learned how to play fetch with his toys and keeps bringing them back. They just always bring a smile to my face.

3. Snuggling. I love to curl up on the couch with my husband and kitties and watch a movie or just plain be. It's probably the easiest way to unwind after a long day.

2. Taking Pictures. I have always been a take pictures of things and not people kind of girl. I like to carry the camera around and capture whatever catches my eye. While you could argue that this isn't free because you need a camera, we bought ours years ago and use it often enough that the cost per use is very very low.

1. Playing Board Games. This is my favorite thing to do when we have a group of people together. My preferred game is Pictionary, but I love them all - Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, Scrabble. We received most of our board games as gifts and my family always shows up to a party with one or another in hand. Case in point - my sister introduced us to Oodles this past weekend and we all had a blast.

I know that some of these items have an initial overhead cost, but at this point in time they are free for us. You can argue, of course, that my cats aren't free because of food, litter, vet bills, etc., but the point is that I don't have to spend any money to do any of these things today. There are plenty of activities I could choose to do that are costly, and I plan to use my list to keep enjoying the simple, free things in life.

A Day Off!

Today, in the US, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Which means, for some people, including myself, a day out of work. It was a little unexpected, as my company isn't known for having a lot of holiday time. We didn't have Columbus Day, Veteran's Day or Patriot's Day off last year. (In MA, almost every company is closed on Patriot's Day. We're the only state to celebrate it - with the Marathon!) Yet they give us MLK Day and President's Day off. Not that I am negating the importance of these holidays, but you have to wonder how they decide which days to have as company holidays and which to have as work days.

In any case, most holidays I have off from my first job find me working at my second job, or traveling to visit family. Today, however, I have completely to myself. No work. No place to go (unless I want to). No errands that need doing. Just time, sweet time, a whole day of time to do as I please.

So today I am here and there, doing this and that. I had breakfast on my mom (Thanks Mom!) this morning, did some laundry, read some emails. My plan is to write a few blog posts to go up throughout the week, visit the library and update to Quicken 2008. I'm just really enjoying having time to do things - the things that get pushed aside when everything else is going on. It's strengthening my argument to quit my second job. Just another straw for the camel.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Moving Down to One Job - Soon?

The other day, I got into a fight argument with my husband, which revolved around my second job. Words were exchanged, things were a little heated, but the gist of it was that the pros no longer outweigh the cons of keeping my second job.

My primary job is picking up, both in my commissions and responsibility and the second job is starting to affect my work there. More importantly, however, is the way it's affecting my sanity and my relationships. I rarely, if ever, see my friends and extended family. I try to see my parents frequently, but I find myself saying "I have to work" all the time. My husband's schedule is difficult to work around, so we don't always align our "off time", and when we do, it's mostly spent doing chores.

On top of all that, I am feeling rather burnt out. I knew it was bound to happen, and quite frankly, I'm surprised I made it this long. I started working two jobs in September 2006. Since then, I have worked almost every Tuesday, Friday, and weekend. I have only made about $11,000 from this job in that time. It was great to throw that right to our debt, but I am just... done.

There is a bump in the road, however. Due to some extenuating circumstances, our February paychecks may not be up to our regular income. This is causing a LOT of stress, and we should find out within the next 10 days or so if we'll be making enough money in February to cover our bills. (I apologize for being so vague - believe me, I am dying to discuss this.) Once I know that we'll be OK, then I plan to quit the second job. I am crossing my fingers that I will be able to enter February with only ONE job!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Procrastination Costs me Money

I am a horrific procrastinator. I always wait until the last possible second to do anything - clean my house before people come over, finish work before a deadline. I even write my posts right before bed. For some reason, I won't do my tasks until there's pressure. Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow?

I have two possible culprits (excuses) for why I procrastinate so much. One, I was an engineering major in college and learned to operate remarkably well under pressure, which somehow translated to only operating when under pressure. Or it could be the second reason - I have so many things to do that only the mos imperative tasks are done each day. Urgency is a pretty good way to get to the top of my list. Unfortunately, more tasks are added to my to-do list every day and there are a few that keep getting pushed until tomorrow... or the next day... or the next day.

Regardless of the reasoning, there are a few issues that crop up due to my penchant for putting things off. I am always under pressure, which,while I thrive under pressure, can be irritating at times. And it costs me money.

I can think of 2 ways in the past week that I spent money because I procrastinated and didn't plan ahead. I went to the grocery store next to my retail job one night because I didn't get enought food for dinner that night. This store just happens to charge about twice as much for their food than my normal store. But the better example is my husband's birthday last week. On his actual birthday, I bought his present, picked out a card and finished making his cake. Not only could I have saved some money by planning ahead and comparison shopping, I could have gotten his card for free using CVS deals and spent more time with him and less time frosting the cake. Between the two of these I could have saved $7-10.

But these are just small examples. In the past, I have paid credit cards late and missed other payments by putting them off. While I haven't done that in quite some time (my one error notwithstanding), I'm still not quite organized or efficient enough to maximize my money. But I'm getting there. The first step is to admit you have a problem. :) Now to go about solving it...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Prioritizing Your Money

Budgeting money is all about prioritizing. Some of it is obvious - pay the mortgage before you pay for cable, buy food before you buy new clothes. I've been in the situation where you have to play bill roulette to determine which bill gets paid this week. Not fun. Fortunately, those times have passed (never to be seen again!) and we have a lot more choices to make with our money.

Once all the bills are covered and all essentials are met, we must make a decision. I come across these decision every day. I am not one of those people who naturally doesn't spend money. I have to stop myself from buying things daily. Whether I'm at the grocery store, at work, or driving by a restaurant, I always want to spend our money. I allow myself a little bit of "fun money" every month to spend on these trivial things, but ultimately the rest of our money goes toward our financial goals.

Even within our goals, we need to prioritize. The credit card debt has always been our highest priority, however, we have a no interest credit card that currently holds just under half our debt. The 0% interest ends in September, so I want to make sure we have it paid off before any interest kicks in. Hopefully we will have the remainder of the credit card debt paid off in March. So what to do with the six months in between?

The mathematically logical thing to do would be to start on our other goals while making minimum payments on the 0% card and then paying off the credit card just before the deadline. The psychological thing to do is to pay off the credit card completely as soon as we can. My plan is somewhere in the middle.

I want to make sure that everything is paid off with time to spare before the interest would kick in. I'm not very good at being on time, and this is very important not to miss. My goal is to pay off the 0% credit card by the end of August. In the time between March and August, I am going to split our non-essential money among three categories:

1. The 0% Credit Card
2. Emergency Fund
3. Retirement.

Opening my 401(k) won't take a huge chunk of my income, but the earlier I do it, the sooner I start making money on my investments. The rest of the money will be split evenly between the credit card and the emergency fund. If all goes well, the credit card will be paid off in August (or before!) by using half of our allocated non-essential monies alone. However, if we need it, come August 31 we can use the money in the emergency fund to pay off the balance before it accrues any interest, without completely depleting our savings.

This way we can work towards more than one goal at a time. I thought about splitting the money between the 0% credit card and the dreaded 2nd mortgage, but that would leave us high and dry if an emergency comes around. Hopefully, all goes smoothly, but we know how likely that is! :)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Financial Goals for 2008

After a fairly successful 2007, I am excited about moving forward in 2008. As this is a personal finance blog, I have a few goals for both our finances and the blog itself.

Financial goals:

1. Wipe out credit card debt. I can't wait to say goodbye to this forever. We have $12486.99 in credit card debt right now. The goal is to have it all paid off in April. This has been a goal for a long long time and to finally achieve it will be momentous.

2. Build our Emergency Fund. Despite all the times I talk about it, our emergency fund remains empty. I just can't bring myself to squirrel away money when I am paying all this interest. I have a million reasons to have a little one for now at least, but I still just... don't. The goal for 2008 is to put away $5000 into an emergency fund.

3. Open a 401(k) with my company. My company has a half match up to 8% of my earnings, fully vested immediately. I know I am throwing away free money by not opening the account. Once the debt is gone, I will open the 401(k) and work my way up to the 8%.

4. Open Roth IRAs for my husband and me. We don't have any retirement accounts currently and we need to get the ball rolling. There will only be so many years (hopefully!) until we hit the income limit to have Roth IRAs, so I really want to capitalize on them while we have the chance. In 2008, the maximum contribution per person is $5,000, so this is a $10,000 goal.

5. Start paying down our second mortgage. The next debt on the list is our interest only (cringe), adjustable rate (double cringe) $42,000 second mortgage. The goal is to pay $8800 of principal from the second mortgage.

These goals are definitely a stretch for us as we paid $23,712 towards our credit card debt in 2007 and the total amount we're working towards in 2008 is about $40,000. I have a shoot-for-the-stars, land-on-the-moon approach. Part of having separate goals is that we can achieve them individually and still be successful in 2008, even if we don't achieve them all.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Commissions Resolved!

All the way back in November, I wrote about my commission problems. In short, my company charged me back about $2500 due to a billing error. Not good.

Although they never asked me to pay them directly, all the money I have earned in commissions has first gone towards the deficit. With no intention to do so, I added to our debts. I haven't received any commissions since October, and I still owe my company about $1900. At least it's at 0%, right?

Recently, however, the billing issue has been resolved and the order reinstated. Meaning, I will re-earn my $2500 in commissions and get paid out on the $600 that I have already put towards the deficit. Finally.

Here is the good news, though. When I originally was paid on the order, it qualified me for a quarterly bonus (based entirely on revenues brought in). Since the order was originally placed in the 2006 fiscal year, and is now reinstated in the 2007 fiscal year, it's possible that I could qualify for another bonus. Technically, the revenue has been brought in again during 2007. I am still waiting to hear about that - I should find out around the middle of January.

In the end, though, I am just happy to have it all evened out and back to normal. Without commissions, my income is cut pretty substantially. The commissions go straight towards our debt, so getting them back will go far towards our debt payoff.

Friday, January 4, 2008

New Year's Eve Bait and Switch

This past weekend, my husband and I drove down to his parent's house to celebrate Christmas, New Year's, and both of our birthdays with them. On New Year's Eve, we drove into Baltimore to go to their Spectacular, complete with live music and fireworks.

We decided to go out to diner before the fireworks, and called the day before to make reservations. When I gave the restaurant my name, they also took a credit card number to hold the table and noted that, should we cancel our reservation, it would be charged $50. This should have been my first hint that trouble was afoot. Naively, I thought they needed to take credit cards because it was a busy night and didn't want to be holding a table for people who weren't going to show up. While I'm sure that was a part of it, there was more to it.

Before we went into Baltimore, I checked out the menu on the restaurant's website. The entrees ranged from $18-$40, which is much more than we usually spend. However, we knew that this was a special occasion and had prepared for it. I picked out a meal before we went for $21, planned to have one drink and then switch to water, and figured I was golden.

When we got to the restaurant, it was an entire different story. We pranced in and were told they were using a special menu for the night. OK, no big deal, I can pick something else to eat. Until I saw the menu. Then I freaked out.

Everything on the menu was a package - appetizer, entree, dessert, soft drink, coffee & champagne toast. There was no option to just pick an entree and call it a night. Worst of all - the cheapest package was $53. Our cost had essentially doubled and there was nothing we could do about it.

We considered leaving, but the $50 hold on the credit card made it pretty pointless to do so - any other place we chose to eat would cost about $50 and, with the credit card hold, we'd be right back at square one. So we stayed and chose to enjoy ourselves instead of getting angry and ruining the night. And you had better believe we got every single thing offered as an option.

The restaurant really handled the situation poorly. First of all, it was way too much food for one person to eat. Generally we split an appetizer or a dessert, never mind each ordering our own of both. I was bursting at the seams after eating everything out of spite. In addition, there was no mention on the website or when I called to make the reservation of the special menu with the higher prices. I really feel like we were duped and tricked into spending more money than we normally would. I'm not sure what the advantage of this is for the restaurant - obviously, the make more money, but we couldn't have been the only ones who felt tricked. It has turned me off to that restaurant and eating out in general - which, I suppose is good for the budget in the long run. I'm sure that won't last too long!

Afterwards, the fireworks were Spectacular!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

2007 In Review

Well, the year has come to a close. What a year it was - tons of financial things happening, with the biggest, of course, being debt payoff. We learned the art of Cheap Dating, hit a couple of big milestones, and improved our attitudes towards finances in general. Of course, there were plenty of bumps in the road. But more importantly, the numbers!

  • We paid a total of $43,712.93 towards all of our debts (except mortgage). This includes credit cards, student loans, and auto loans.
  • Of that $43K, $30,099.73 was paid to principal, meaning we paid $13,613.20 in interest.
  • The amount paid to credit cards was $23,712.57, with $18,769.32 of that paid to the principal, leaving $4943.25 in interest.
Whoa! That a lot of money. Looking at my income for 2007, just about all the money I made went straight towards our debt. It's both incredible that we were able to do that and horrible that we were in the situation where we had to. I am proud and excited by the progress we made towards our main goal in 2007 and I can't wait to finish up the credit cards in 2008!